Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility

January 26, 2013
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds

Published in The Times on 26th January 2013

One of my favourite Jewish sayings is, “Many people worry about their own stomachs and the state of other people’s souls. The real task is to do the opposite: to worry about other people’s stomachs and the state of your own soul.” Or as Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) used to put it: “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.”

I was reminded of these sentiments by the massive campaign, Enough Food for Everyone IF, currently being mounted by NGOs and religious groups, among them several from the Jewish community, to campaign for stronger action on the part of the nations of the world to address the still acute need for food in many countries.

The facts are devastating. Close to a billion people, one-eighth of the world’s population, still live in hunger. Each year 2 million children die through malnutrition. This is happening at a time when doctors in Britain are warning of the spread of obesity. We are eating too much while others starve.

This is not just an economic and political challenge. It is a religious one as well. The Hebrew Bible contains multiple provisions to ensure that no one would go hungry. The corners of the field, forgotten sheaves of grain, gleanings that drop from the hands of the gleaner, and small clusters of grapes left on the vine were to be given to the poor.

Everything that grew in the seventh year belonged to everyone. In the third and sixth year of the septennial cycle, a tithe of all produce went to those in need. As nineteenth century social reformer Henry George put it, the great concern of Moses was “to lay the foundation of a social state in which deep poverty and degrading want should be unknown.” It was the world’s first welfare state and the first form of redistributive taxation.

One contemporary translation of these biblical imperatives is Leket (“gleanings”), Israel’s national food bank, which rescues surplus food and agricultural produce that would otherwise be destroyed from catering halls, farms and Kibbutzim, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and bakeries and distributes them to the disadvantaged. Where there is a will, there is a way.

In the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides said that though the ultimate aim of religion is “perfection of the soul,” nonetheless “perfection of the body” – by which he meant this kind of alleviation of poverty and the fight against injustice – came first. You cannot, he said, give your mind to higher things if you lack food to eat or a home in which to live. That is why the alleviation of poverty is a religious duty.

The problem today, as the organisers of the campaign put it, is that the world produces enough food for everyone but not everyone has enough food. There are places where farmers are being forced off their land, and countries in which international corporations avoid paying local taxes. Food prices are often kept artificially high. The result is that the millennium development goals set out by the United Nations at the start of the new millennium are not being reached. Fine words have not yet been turned into deeds.

As chance or providence would have it, today is Tu Bishvat, the special day in the Jewish calendar known as the New Year for trees. Throughout history this served to remind Jews to bring a tithe to Jerusalem where fruit was shared with friends and strangers, or on other years given to the poor.

We are, Jews believe, not owners of the wealth we produce, merely guardians – “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” – and one of the conditions of our guardianship is that we share our blessings with others.

One of my favourite Jewish stories is of the great mystical Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Ladi who awoke one night to hear his grandson crying. He went downstairs and found his son so intent on his studies that he had failed to hear the cry. So the grandfather went into the child’s bedroom and gently rocked the baby until it went to sleep again. Then he went to his son and said, “My child, I do not know what you are studying, but it cannot be the word of God if it makes you deaf to the cry of the child.”

Today, even in a world of plenty, too many of the world’s children are crying. Let us not be deaf to their cry.